I wanted to share the fascinating story of a Channel Four documentary I watched about Queen Victoria and her disabled grandson. WARNING: major spoiler alert. I highly recommend watching the programme if possible (details at bottom of post), if not, here’s the story:
In 1858 Queen Victoria’s daughter, also called Victoria but referred to as Vicky, married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. The intention of the marriage was to unite the two great European kingdoms of Britain and Germany. The union of the two nations became literal when Vicky fell pregnant.
A Scottish doctor named St James Clark, an expert in the use of the new anaesthetic chloroform, was despatched to Germany to assist the birth. He’d administered pain relief to Queen Victoria during some of her pregnancies. Vicky was actually given so much chloroform that she was rendered insensible and unable to assist during the birth. This wouldn’t have ordinarily posed a problem, but it did on this occasion. The baby was breeched. It was coming out feet first. This was a deadly situation at the time. The normal reaction was to perform a caesarean, but there was a major downside to caesareans at that time: they killed the mother. Unsurprisingly, no doctor was willing to kill Queen Victoria’s daughter.
With some difficulty they managed to free the legs, but the baby was still stuck. In desperation the doctor reached in and located the babies left arm. He pulled on the arm and managed to drag the child from the womb. Those in attendance were initially concerned that the baby had not survived the traumatic birth, but after some time he began to cry and everyone felt jubilant, at least initially.
It was three days later that the nurse expressed her concerns to Vicky. The baby had developed a strange crease across its left shoulder and the arm wasn’t moving. Unbeknown to them, the act of pulling on the baby’s arm had caused irreparable nerve damage to the side of his neck, rendering the arm paralysed. It’s a condition known today as Erb’s palsy.
During Victorian times disabled people were looked down upon, and the idea that the royal family could have a disabled member was completely unacceptable. The royals were supposed to exude strength and power, not fragility. As a commentator on the programme said: “The royals donate money to disabled people. They don’t have disabled people.”
Vicky was devastated. She wanted a cure, and the doctors were determined to find one. At that time German medicine was awash with quack ‘cures’ and remedies, and the young boy was subjected to some of the most horrific of these.
Hares were viewed as brimming with vitality and strength. It was believed that this vitality could be transferred to the boy’s arm. As such, the young boy was forced to watch a hare being slaughtered and gutted in front of him. The still-warm skin was then tied around his arm and he was forced to wear it. This procedure occurred twice a week and continued for many years. Who knows how much such a barbaric act would traumatise a young boy?
Besides animal slaughter they would tie his good arm behind his back in the hope that he’d be forced to use his good arm. But the arm was paralysed. Using it was impossible. There was nothing he could do to ‘force’ it to work. This practice would only leave the child feeling confused and frustrated. Due to such treatments the child, unsurprisingly, began developing behavioural problems. He began to get angry and violent, but the procedures continued. At one time they tried electrotherapy. It was a painful procedure whereby severe electric shocks were applied to his arm. They were essentially torturing him.
As he grew older they realised that his condition was also affecting his posture. His head began twisting to the right. When he was around four they constructed a machine into which he would be strapped. It had a metal rod going up the back and various leather straps. There was a screw device that could be tightened. As the screw was turned his head would be wrenched into the correct position. This medieval practice continued for two years.
The years of repeated failure coupled with the huge expectation upon him caused the boy great pain and frustration. It wasn’t until he was twelve that they finally accepted that the horror they were inflicting was futile.
Meanwhile, the condition was considered an embarrassment and was kept hidden. This was during the era of photography, so elaborate ploys were developed to avoid arousing suspicion. He even had clothes specially made with one arm shorter than the other to mask the fact that one arm was less developed than the other.
In a letter to Queen Victoria, Vicky openly admitted that the condition spoiled all the pleasure and pride she should have felt. And after she had more children, she began to reject him. Those who’ve studied the case have concluded that Vicky’s rejection was something that devastated the boy even more than the illness itself.
He began to blame his mother and reject her too. He felt great love for his grandmother, but not for his mother. He enjoyed trips to Britain where he would stay at his grandmother’s family residence on the Isle of Wight. There he enjoyed the British way of life, particularly sailing.
Accepting that he was never going to be physically superior his mother decided to make him intellectually superior. She sent him away to a prestigious boarding school, but this only exacerbated his feeling of rejection. He desperately wanted to be close to her, but she just pushed him further away. Aged sixteen, while away at school, he sent her a long gushing letter about his desire to be with her. Heartbreakingly, her response was to simply correct his grammar. It’s no surprise that he stopped writing to her. When she later wrote a twenty page letter and he declined to respond she became annoyed at his indifference.
He became increasingly awkward, angry and violent. When his dad developed cancer an English doctor was summoned. The, by now young man, began claiming that an English doctor had crippled him and an English doctor was going to kill his dad (even though the original doctor was Scottish). At that time cancer was something the doctor could do nothing about. He was second in line for the throne, so when the inevitable happened and his dad died he became the new king. He had serious emotional problems and was widely recognised as unprepared for the role. But the die had been cast. At twenty-nine years old he became the leader of a huge and powerful country. The volatile young man had become Wilhelm II the German Emperor and King of Prussia. Today he’s often referred to as simply The Kaiser.
He marginalised his mother and she retreated to a residence outside of Hamburg. She feared his behaviour and recognised the potential threat. Meanwhile, he began building a navy capable of rivalling the great navy of Britain. He felt that Germany needed a strong navy so that she too could develop a great empire.
His military ambitions created growing tension between the two nations. They were only abated by the great love he had for his grandmother, who still occupied the British throne, but this wasn’t to last.
In 1901 he received a message that his beloved grandmother was seriously ill. He immediately rushed to Britain to be by his grandmother’s side. In fact, he was with her when she died. It’s a little known fact that Queen Victoria died in the arms of the Kaiser.
With this familial connection severed his fondness for Britain subsided. He became convinced that Britain was standing in the way of a German empire. He continued growing his navy, and Vicky became increasingly worried. She feared for the future of the two countries. Her fears were well grounded, but she didn’t live long enough to know. She died seven months after Queen Victoria.
With his English mother dead Wilhelm’s ties with Britain were severed completely. His difficult childhood had created a quarrelsome man with anger issues and an inferiority complex. These traits were to play out in the most devastating way imaginable when his provocative actions would lead to the First World War, the deaths of millions and the devastation of Europe. Many people forget that when Britain and Germany went to war it was the armies of two cousins who were fighting each other.
After the war much of the hatred and anger was directed at him. Some even called for him to be hanged. He was forced to give up his throne and crossed the border into the Netherlands where he lived the rest of his life in exile. He died in June 1941, aged 82. At his request he was buried in the Netherlands’, meaning that he never returned to Germany. He was the last of the German monarchs.
The intention of Vicky and Frederick’s marriage was to unite the two great European kingdoms. Wilhelm was the child who literally embodied that union. But, contrary to all that was hoped, it was he who tore the countries apart. It’s sobering to realise that the horrors of World War I may not have happened if it wasn’t for the serious emotional issues that resulted from the horrors of Wilhelm’s childhood.
The brilliant Channel Four documentary “Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser” is still available on 4oD